Melissa Balmer with her bike in Long Beach. Photo by Lisa Beth Anderson
Melissa Balmer hadn’t been on a bike in 30 years. She gave up her car because she lives in one of Long Beach’s most parking-impacted neighborhoods, but never considered replacing her bus trips and walks with a bicycle.
When a friend first suggested she try getting around on two wheels instead, Balmer, like most women, was worried about beginning a life by bike when she knew she was unable to adhere to all the intense images of urban cycling in the media.
Do I have to wear Lycra? How do I find a stylish helmet? What if I don’t want a sport bike? Can I still walk to work if I feel like it?
By the time Balmer finally took the plunge and bought her own steed, Long Beach was months deep into its mission to become the most bike-friendly city in the country, motivating the former fashion PR consultant to find new ways to share her style-conscious, lifestyle-oriented take on bicycle advocacy.
“We can’t only be promoting helmets because then everyone thinks it’s a sport and we can’t say, ‘Ride a bike if you’re only interested in being hardcore and using it to and from work every day,’” she says. “I’m interested in the person who wants to ride a bike any way that works for them as long as its safe and not hurting other people. And women take a longer time to decide these things.”
In September 2011, Balmer connected with the nonprofit Bikeable Communities and launched the Women on Bikes SoCal project, a Long Beach-based website where she and a team of writers and photographers engaged with its audience through storytelling on female-centric issues from how to shop for a bike if you are petite to ways to transport children without a car.
Last week at the California Bicycle Coalition’s California by Bike Summit, it was announced that Women on Bikes SoCal is expanding to become the Women on Bikes California initiative, a new project that aims to mainstream the bicycle through storytelling and advocacy as a way to help the CBC achieve its goal to triple the number of people on bicycles by 2020.
The new, California-wide website is called Pedal Love and the plan is to add to the previous work done locally with video narratives that will showcase people across the country’s most populous state who are incorporating the bicycle into their lives in a variety of ways.
“There is just a lot of power in personally engaging stories,” says Balmer, the new Initiative Director of Women on Bikes California. “Ordinary people are making extraordinary changes to their lives by bike and we think that getting these lifestyle stories beautifully crafted in a way we can hand to the media and to people is so important.”
As with Women on Bikes SoCal, there is a training element embedded in Balmer’s latest project. While she previously raised money to give 10 women scholarships to become Certified Bicycle Instructors, Women on Bikes California will train 100 people (both men and women) in multimedia and video storytelling so that they can help capture more stories and become ambassadors for the movement.
An Indiegogo campaign has been launched for Pedal Love in the hopes of raising $10,000 for these trainings. Money will also go towards polishing off the website, increasing content and photography and finishing the first Pedal Love video, which will feature North Long Beach resident Kellie Morris, who regained her health and wellness by adopting an active, bike-infused life.
“With this new initiative, we want to have a beautiful website and do great videos that will engage people on an emotional and visceral level,” Balmer says. “We want to move away from just having bike stories being about crash data and streets to the bike as a fashion darling. Then, the bike’s not just the must-have item, but you get these wonderful diverse stories behind them too.”
The ultimate goal with all of her projects, says Balmer, is to walk by a magazine stand and see bikes as casual props on every cover—a level of normalization and mainstreaming that America has not yet reached. California, she believes, can be ground zero for this movement not only for the state’s nearly year-round riding weather, but also for its connections to crucial media markets as well as tourism, entertainment and technology industries.
By connecting with potential riders and passionate advocates alike through social media, blogs and (soon enough) with videos, Women on Bikes California hopes to encourage the next generation of cyclists to become inspired to discover how bikes can fit into their life.
“We have to give them a bite-sized chew so they feel comfortable putting their toe in the water,” Balmer says. “California needs to be a leader in this and Long Beach is already doing such a great job, but we have to continue the story. Infrastructure alone is not going to get us where we need to go.”